PHOENIX – Did you just get a check for $32 from the state?
It’s not a gift from your friends at the the Department of Transportation to you and about 200,000 others. It’s the last step in an inquiry originally started by Capitol Media Services.
The money, totaling about $6.6 million, is going out to people whose sent in vehicle registration renewals for the period beginning July 1. But ADOT charged them a $32 ‘‘public safety fee’’ even though the law said that fee was supposed to end on June 30.
And when lawmakers found out, they ordered a refund.
That fee was enacted in 2018 as part of a move to raise more money for the state for road construction and repair.
Those projects are supposed to funded by gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees. But lawmakers, in prior efforts to balance the budget, siphoned off some of what was raised to finance the Highway Patrol.
So Noel Campbell, then a Republican state representative from Prescott, came up with a plan: Fund the Highway Patrol with this separate public safety fee – with the amount determined by ADOT – added to other registration costs. That, in turn, freed up revenues for roads.
But the $32 price tag ADOT put on it resulted in an outcry, not only from residents who saw it as a hidden tax hike but from lawmakers who were told it would not be anywhere near that much.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, pushed to rescind it immediately. But with Ducey’s budget dependent on the revenues, she had to settle for a self-destruct date at July 1 of this year.
But here’s the thing.
ADOT tacked the fee on the registration renewals that went out in June, even though those were actually for the period that began July 1 – after the fee expired. Agency spokesman Doug Pacey said his agency read the statute as allowing for that.
Capitol Media Services brought that to the attention of Ugenti-Rita. She said that assessing the fee on registrations that take effect in the new fiscal year that began July 1 was never her intent.
“I cannot even believe that’s their interpretation,’’ she said. “You’ve already paid through the 30th.’’
And she was not shy in her displeasure.
“It’s like dealing with a snake-oil salesman,’’ Ugenti-Rita said, dealing not just with ADOT but other state agencies. “There’s no support for their very advantageous interpretation.’’
So with ADOT refusing to budge, the senator brought out a bigger hammer.
She got language inserted into the new state budget to say that anyone whose vehicle registration expired on June 30 is not legally required to pay that $32 fee. And that law, which took effect on July 1, in turn forced ADOT to start writing out checks to all the people who already had submitted – and paid for – their renewals.
The senator said she was not willing to simply let the issue slide.
“It’s a ton of money,’’ Ugenti-Rita said, both from the individual perspective of the Arizonans who she said were improperly charged the $32 fee as well as the cash being funneled into state coffers.
Anyway, Ugenti-Rita said, with the state now flush with cash, there was no reason for ADOT to take another $6.6 million out of the pockets of vehicle owners who renewed their registrations that expire at the end of this month.
Pacey said anyone who had a June 30 registration expiration who has not received a check by the middle of October can call his agency at 602-255-0072.